When Dogs Look Like Their Owners

While away at college I have received periodic calls from a wide array of my family. They check in, ask the basic “How is class?” or “How was the football game?” Grandma’s call was different last Sunday, it was a reminder that her beloved Maltese, Maggie, had ascended to doggie heaven 15 years ago that day. Grandma’s lovely call reminded me of a snapchat I received from my cousin of an old photo where Maggie and Grandma are dressed for my parents wedding, and they look like identical twins. This photo lead me to question if dogs do really look like their owner.


Grandma and Maggie pre-wedding in 1988

A 2013 study published in the British Journal, Anthrozoos “Dogs and owners resemble each other in the eye region” was done by Sadahiko Nakajima, a psychologist at the Kwansei Gakuin University of Japan. Nakajima believed it was more than chance that humans and their dog’s resemblance to each other. To test his hypothesis Nakajima took 502 undergraduate students and presented them with two sheets. The sheets contained photos of Japanese men and women ages 20-60 and a dog. The participants had to determine of the two sheets, which had photos of true dog human pairs and which sheet had random people and dogs. 80% of participants were able to determine the sheet that had the dog and their owner.

Nakajima then enhanced his study by modifying the sheets in four ways. One sheet had a black bar to cover the owner’s mouth in the photos, another had the humans eyes covered, the next had the dogs eyes blacked out, and the last sheet contained only the eyes of both the humans and their dog pair. Since people guessed real pairs with the most accuracy when they could see the eyes of the dog and human, Nakajima concluded that the eyes of dogs and humans are what connects .

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Example of the sheets Nakajima’s participants viewed

Nakajima’s conclusion stems from the finding that when it was only the eyes of the pair about 80% of the participants continued to correctly identify the dog owner pair. Yet when the eyes were hidden from participants they could only correctly identify pairs with 50% accuracy. The 50% accuracy showed Nakajima that without participants seeing the eyes of the dogs or owners a correct identification was up to chance.  Nakajima’s believes it is the characteristics of the eyes, such as their structure, color, size and amount of movement that cause dog-to-owner

I feel that Nakajima’s study design was well thought out, especially with the addition of 4 modifications to the study. Although even with the modifications it is hard for me to believe that it is the eye region that connects dogs and their humans. I feel this way because features such as a person’s hair, head size, and nose are more distinguishable on a face, to me, than a person’s eyes. A topic often brought up in class is how a variable effects men and women differently. Nakajima’s study states 502 participants, never deciphering if there was a difference in results from men and women. What a gender looks more carefully in a face for could be different, and Nakajima never acknowledged that.

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Other studies done by Christina Payne and Klaus Jaffe of Simon Bolivar University and Michael M. Roy and Nicholas J.S Christenfeld of University of California, San Diego in the early 2000s had similar hypotheses to Nakajima and conducted much smaller, corresponding studies that resulted in complementary results. Payne and Jaffe asked their participants to pair six sets of pictures of a dog with its owner. Participants were “more accurate than could be ascribed to chance.”  Roy and Christenfeld had participants determine a dog owner pair by showing them pictures of 45 dog owners, for every dog owner the participant had to determine which of two dogs shown to him belonged to the owner.

Nakajima believes that “if future studies reveal more about what features of the eyes play major roles in perceived similarity, such knowledge could shed light on why dogs and owners look alike.” I believe future studies should focus on the concept of learned behaviors of dogs from their owners and vice versa. Do these behaviors effect the relationship of the pair?  A possible study design to eliminate uncertainty like Nakajima’s study left me with would be a correlational study done over the dog’s life span with the owner.  The study would be observing the amount of time the dog owner pair spent together, and similar emotions felt by the pair. The more similar their emotions are over time would show how their behaviors have changed, or not, through being together. A study should also consider how the owner perceives themselves, and their looks and if that correlates to the bread, size, color and shape of the dog they .

It is probable that other factors result in the similarities I saw in my Grandma and Maggie then just the characteristics of their eyes. Although multiple studies attest to the importance of the eye region.

4 thoughts on “When Dogs Look Like Their Owners

  1. Cassidy Paige Heiserman

    This post was very interesting and I often notice how much people look like their dogs. While you have a lot of good studies that show dogs and their owners often do look similar, the unresolved question is why? I think that typically, people date other people that they find attractive, and in turn, couples usually show many similar features. Is it possible that when purchasing or rescuing a dog humans do the same thing? By “same thing” I mean: are humans more drawn to dogs that show similar features with them? Something else that would be interesting would be to compare cats and their owners’ similarities. Do cats often look like their owners as well, or is that typically only true among dogs? Overall, really interesting and well written post!

  2. Alexandra Herr

    This post was interesting because it is something I notice yet never question. People say a dog is a man’s best friend, and I wonder if that saying should be altered to say family instead. There is no doubt in my mind that owners and their pets look alike, but I still question why. I am curious if people are more attracted to pets with the same hair color or face shape or large/small body size. My hypothesis on this subject is that people buy dogs with similar traits to their own because they are more attracted to the qualities that they themselves possess. I believe there is evidence of this in a 2-human relationship also. For example, people tend to be attracted to their own races. I, on the other hand, do not look anything like my dog (or at least don’t believe I do). I hope people continue to adopt pets that look like them so I can continue to be entertained by pictures like the ones above!

  3. Allison C Lightner

    This post is highly relevant because there are so many things on social media and other stuff online about this correlation. But I never knew that it was because of the eyes having some effect on the people being studied. I would also like to know what the ratio of men/women were. Also, you said that 502 undergraduate Japanese students were tested, so is there a difference between what Americans and Japanese people would notice in the pictures? Another thing, are scientists only publishing pictures of dogs and humans that look alike, because I know my dog and I don’t look alike? Or could this just be a coincidence that people would choose dogs that look like them? It is said that dog’s are man’s best friend, but I wouldn’t want a friend that looked just like me.

  4. Claire E Going

    Hi Amanda,
    Your post caught my attention because when I was in the second grade I actually won a “Look Like Your Dog” contest in my local newspaper. I have black hair and dark brown eyes, and so does my dog. We are both smaller and female with long eyelashes, and the picture of the two of us sitting next to each other was oddly similar. I think the study you spoke about in your post is valid, but further research can be performed. In the pictures you displayed above, it is easy to match the owners eyes with the dogs, which makes them look the most similar like you explained in your post. I think hair has a lot to do with it too, but eyes are the key factor. This article explains further as to why dogs look like their owners.

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